Nov 4, 2015, 9:05 AM EDT
Any time a team fires one manager and hires another, many things will need to be fixed. The Nationals remain a deep and impressive roster despite their shortcomings this past season. But after Dusty Baker is introduced on Thursday – barring something unforeseen, as you never know these days – he will need to get to work repairing a team that massively underachieved under Matt Williams in 2015. Here is a look at a few matters he will need to address…
Oversee development of young players
The Nationals have been guided by veterans for the most part in recent years with Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond and previously Adam LaRoche standing out as leaders. But this offseason could turn the page to a new era for the Nats with Michael Taylor, Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon and Bryce Harper expecting to serve as big of roles as any players on the team in 2016. Throw Joe Ross into the rotation and possibly Lucas Giolito, and that’s a large core of young players who are all trying to reach their potential to varying degrees. Harper, of course, doesn’t need to improve at all, but the rest of that group will need to continue developing if they are to be relied on as much as it currently appears they will. Managing the Nationals in 2016 could require a little more patience than has been needed over the last three years or so with inexperience becoming a bigger factor. Harper, by the way, is entering his fifth MLB season, which is pretty amazing.
Repair the clubhouse
In 2015, the Nationals not only fell short of the playoffs, they resorted to backstabbing through anonymous media reports and undermined their manager along the way. That was all in addition to an ugly altercation between Harper and Jonathan Papelbon that was captured on camera for all of us to see. The Papelbon problem will likely be sorted out this offseason in a trade, but questions persist about the Nationals’ ability to handle adversity both on and off the field. Baker will need to bring the team back together and garner the respect of veteran players, most notably Werth, who has had issues with other Nats managers. Baker would seem like the perfect manager for this task, a guy who has the résumé both as a former player and accomplished manager that instantly brings credibility to the clubhouse. It’s hard to question a man who has quite obviously been through more in the game of baseball than many players ever will.
Pick the right coaching staff
Baker’s first order of business this offseason is picking his coaching staff, which could have important implications. For one, Baker’s questionable history dealing with pitchers is well-documented. He is also a former position player and not a former pitcher. Who he hires as his pitching coach will have plenty of responsibility, and he will also have big shoes to fill following Steve McCatty, who is the only pitching coach many Nats pitchers – including Stephen Strasburg – have ever known. The Nationals also had a defensive specialist on staff the previous two seasons and it will be interesting to see if they hire another.
Figure out the defense
As talented as the Nationals are – they boast an elite starting rotation even without Jordan Zimmermann and a strong lineup when healthy – defense could be a major concern in 2015. Whether he plays at second or third base, Yunel Escobar is a below average defensive player. Zimmerman is solid at first, but there is a significant drop-off when he is out with an injury, which is a regular occurrence. Trea Turner will likely play a lot and he has to improve on his 21 errors in 111 minor league games last season. Werth has become a below average outfielder. Wilson Ramos, despite him being named a Gold Glove finalist, has his shortfalls. Add it all up and the Nationals have defensive questions all around. That could change this offseason, depending on what they do to their roster. But it will definitely be something to keep in mind moving forward.
The Nationals are expected to let several big name players enter free agency, but that doesn’t mean they will not have high hopes for 2016. An impressive core of talent remains on the roster and the front office plans to be more aggressive this offseason than some are giving them credit for. Three years remain on Harper’s contract before he can test free agency and they certainly want to keep him happy. They also signed Max Scherzer to a record deal last winter. With all that in mind, why take a step back and rebuild now? The Nationals are likely to be big players in free agency and trades once again, as they have been for several years running under GM Mike Rizzo. And once their roster is put together, the World Series predictions will naturally follow. How will Baker manage those expectations? We saw how a ‘World Series or bust’ or a ‘where’s my ring?’ comment can come back to haunt them, but playing and leading with confidence is always good. One thing’s for sure, high expectations for a team will be nothing new for Baker, who has been there before plenty of times with other clubs.
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
ON THE RADIO
As ESPN-980 AM's Nats Insider, Mark makes daily appearances on the station's various shows. Here's the 2015 schedule (subject to change)...
MON: 12:45 p.m.
TUE: 2:30 p.m.
WED: 4:30 p.m.
THU: 2:30 p.m.
FRI: 5:30 p.m.
SAT: 10:30 a.m.
*All times Eastern. You can also listen to the station on 94.3 FM, 92.7 FM and online at ESPN980.com. Click here for past audio clips.
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